- Historic Sites
Dynamic Victoria Woodhull
Her past was shady but her conscience was excellent, and all in all she played a big part in the emancipation of women
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
He had made a great deal of money, first as a shipping magnate—it was his firm that commissioned Donald McKay to build the Flying Cloud, greatest of clipper ships—and later as a traction magnate, in England, in Australia, and in various states of the Union. Becoming affluent, he abandoned business and apparently set out to amuse himself; he became a Fenian to bedevil the British, and in 1870 a Communist to bedevil the French; he read Jules Verne and promptly went around the world in eighty days; he built a villa in Newport; and for the three years following 1869 continually made speeches advocating himself for President.
Naturally, the Claflin affair enthralled him. He too had a paper, called The Train Ligne, in which he defended the sisters. He published choice excerpts culled from the Bible to show the authorities that the Tilton-Beecher article was far less obscene than Holy Writ; so in their frenzy they jugged Train, too. He refused to put up bail or pay a fine, and when they released him at last he appeared on the streets of New York holding an umbrella over his head but stark naked.
Volumes would be required to record all the ravings that followed the breaking open of the scandal, for the country really was set by the ears when piety received a body blow. But piety rallied and grimly set about the business of exterminating the disturbers of its peace. This proved difficult, but it was pursued relentlessly. Beecher, well advised by hard-headed lawyers, refused to sue the Claflins, and eventually Tilton sued him. The case resulted in a hung jury. Nine of the jurors were for Beecher, or at least against Tilton, but three believed the charges, and at least one-fourth of the public joined the three. Beecher continued to preach but never again was his voice accepted as thunder from Sinai.
His friends, however, greatly assisted by other members of the Clafiin family, closed in on Victoria and Tennessee, and by 1877, two years after the Beecher trial, it appeared to be only a matter of time until they would be crushed completely. Then the old Commodore died and it is commonly believed that his death gave them their final triumph over their foes. It came about through the peculiar provisions of his will. His slight esteem for his son Cornelius was evidenced by the fact that he left him $200,000; his opinion of women in general is evidenced by the fact that he left each of his daughters $500,000; while to his son William, who had shown real business capacity, went the residue of the estate, about $90,000,000. The other children tried to break the will, and when it appeared that the case was about to come to trial, someone, probably a shrewd lawyer, had the dreadful thought that the contestants might call the Claflins as witnesses to prove the old man’s incompetence.
Even though he had withdrawn his public support the Commodore had always liked them and had continued to see them almost to the end of his days. So, although they were not mentioned in the will and were not parties to the suit, it was highly probable that the court would admit their testimony; and the very thought of what those women might say on the witness stand was enough to give any trial lawyer palpitations.
Eliminating them was the most obvious of precautions. What was done about it nobody knows, for it was done most discreetly. All that is certain is that the Claflins, who had appeared to be in dire financial straits, suddenly left for England with money in their purses and the will case was settled out of court. Gossip asserted that it took half a million to move them; and under the circumstances it was probably well worth it.
Notoriety followed them abroad, of course, but in England it was merely the notoriety attaching to radical advocates of women’s rights. This closed certain doors to them, but it opened others. The more squalid episodes in their history seem never to have been widely known in London, or if they were the Claflin charm was able to overcome them. Nothing was able to prevent Victoria’s annexing her banker, Mr. John Biddulph Martin, or Tennessee’s acquisition of her title.
Looking back on all of this, it appears that an apparently worthless woman jarred this nation right down to its heels and laid prostrate a number of swelling reputations and a larger number of swollen conventions and punctilios; and this inevitably raises the question, was she in fact worthless?
After all, Victoria Woodhull never championed adultery, swindling, and blackmail, however much she may have practiced them. Many of the causes she advocated were things that later generations have accepted as worthy ideals. The right of a woman to be accepted on her merits as a human being without reference to gender is no longer questioned.
Victoria Woodhull spoke up for all these things when it was dangerous to do so. That is to say, she spoke the truth courageously, and no man or woman has ever yet defied peril to speak truth without producing a profound and lasting effect.
Grant that her story is the most uproarious farce that the lunatic fringe has yet produced, it cannot be denied that the episode gave to the then lethargic cause of women’s rights a dynamic—or, if you prefer, a demonic —drive that it has never completely lost.